After Shane Vereen left the New England Patriots in free agency, the passing running back position became one of the few on the roster that held no clear-cut starters. The contestants to follow the footsteps of Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk were James White, Travaris Cadet and the eventual winner of the battle, Dion Lewis.
The position was in Lewis' able hands until last Sunday, when he sustained a non-contact ACL injury, which forced the Patriots to place their shifty passing back on season-ending injured reserve.
With Lewis out, the position once again is up for grabs. Cadet just recently signed in San Francisco, making White the leading candidate to replace Lewis. During last Sunday's game against Washington, however, another possible option emerged: Brandon Bolden.
The 25-year old, who is one of New England's top special teamers, filled Lewis' role in the fourth quarter and finished with 39 total yards and a touchdown on four touches. While White is the favorite to be the team's passing back moving forward, looking at the film shows that Bolden might be a dark horse candidate to also earn snaps in this role.
1) 2-20-WAS 30 (12:13) (Shotgun) 38-B.Bolden right tackle to WAS 18 for 12 yards (52-K.Robinson).
After an offensive holding penalty and an incomplete pass, the Patriots – up 20-3 – found themselves in a 2nd and 20 situation early in the fourth quarter. New England was in its 11 personnel grouping with Rob Gronkowski as the lone tight end and Brandon Bolden as the lone running back. Washington countered with a nickel package with five defensive backs, three down-linemen and three linebackers.
With Washington having a lighter defense on the field and playing off-man coverage, New England elects to use a designed run play with Bolden. Due to the length of the down, the Redskins only rushed three players. The offensive line won its battles at the line of scrimmage – in particular center-turned-right-tackle Bryan Stork, who was able to protect the edge to create running room for Bolden:
While Bolden doesn't have the elusiveness of Lewis, he displayed good vision running behind Stork and right guard Josh Kline, who was able to get to the second level. Bolden also nicely adjusted his running lane to avoid defensive back Kyshoen Jarrett (30) and gain additional yardage:
Bolden is not as flashy a runner as Lewis and doesn't possess the short-area quickness to avoid tackles like he did, but gets the job done when given the space to operate. The question, of course, is if he is able to get the "tough" yards against a better run defense than Washington's. Still, his display of vision on his only carry of the day shows that he is potentially able to maneuver his way through a defense.
2) 3-8-WAS 18 (11:33) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass deep right to 38-B.Bolden for 18 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The very next play saw Bolden again touch the ball and again gain significant yardage – this time even for a score. Facing a 3rd and 8, the Patriots emptied the backfield and used Bolden as a receiver. The offense lined up in a 3x2 alignment, with trips to Brady's left and a slot formation to his right. The team had the same players on the field as on the previous run play and used Bolden as the right outside receiver:
Washington countered with a disguised cover 1 man-to-man scheme and left linebacker Perry Riley Jr. (56) on an island with Bolden. The running back faked an inside route but turned upfield to run the go route towards the endzone:
This move allowed Bolden to gain a little separation from the linebacker, who didn't receive help from the deep safety, Dashon Goldson (38): Brady keept his eyes to the middle of the field just long enough to freeze the defensive back and not allow him to get to the go route on time. The play couldn't have been executed any better and Bolden was able to haul in the pass for the first receiving touchdown of his career.
Overall, the play was reminiscent of Rob Gronkowski's touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX. Brady knew that the linebacker on the passing back was a mismatch and if Bolden did his job to sell the fake and gain a step on the defender, the team would be able to score. Bolden did just that and while he is not as speedy as Lewis, he provides the team another option in the passing game – and another player a defense has to account for. Bolden versus a linebacker is a mismatch and Brady will find ways to use the running back to the offense's advantage.
3) 3-4-NE 23 (7:59) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass short left to 38-B.Bolden to NE 31 for 8 yards (51-W.Compton; 38-D.Goldson). WAS-38-D.Goldson was injured during the play.
On their next possession, the Patriots were facing another 3rd down. Again, the offense came out in 11 personnel with Brady in the shotgun and an empty backfield. The offense employed a 2x3 formation, with a slot to the left and trips to the right. Bolden lined up on the far left and drew a linebacker – this time it was Will Compton (51) – in coverage:
The defense played cover 4 and Compton lined up ten yards off his man. Bolden read the coverage perfectly and therefore broke to the inside seven yards into his pattern:
Brady delivered another precise pass as Bolden was able to catch the ball right between Compton and Riley Jr., who dropped into coverage, to convert the 3rd down.
This play again shows what makes Bolden a possible replacement for Lewis: his smarts. Just like he did on his earlier touchdown catch, he knew what he had to do in order to get open. While Bolden isn't the quick and shifty athlete Dion Lewis is, his ability to read defenses paired with good vision and route running abilities make him an option to consider when it comes to the task of replacing the injured runner.
Obviously, the sample size is rather small but we have seen that Bolden has the abilities to be the Patriots' passing back. He will probably never make the highlight-reel plays that Lewis made on a regular basis, but he could be a steady and reliable player within the offense. The only questions left are how he would respond to a heavier workload and if the coaching staff will expose one of its core special team players to more hits. We will find out – and trust Belichick and company to make the right call.